There is very little in my DNA that inclines me toward patience. I frequently choose the self-check service at stores because even if I’m slow, at least I’m doing something other than waiting. When my family sees me ducking and weaving around other pedestrians, they tease me that I walk like I drive. They don’t mean it as a compliment. If patience is a virtue, well, I’m not very virtuous.
Yet here we are in Advent, a season that is all about patience and waiting.
We’re waiting for Christmas—presents under the tree, family gathered around the table, maybe a trip to see parents or grandchildren depending on which end of the spectrum you’re on.
We’re waiting to taste that special something that only gets made or purchased at Christmas. We’re waiting to listen to that favorite piece of holiday music or sing the favorite carols.
We’re waiting, of course, for the Christ child to appear and waiting, hoping for hearts to be renewed in this season of peace and goodwill.
A history of waiting
Waiting has been the frequent occupation of God’s people.
Abraham and Sarah waited for the son God had promised them. They got impatient, too, and took matters into their own hands to find a surrogate who gave birth to Ishmael.
Jacob worked for his father-in-law an extra seven years so he could marry Rachel, the wife of his heart, after he was tricked into marrying Leah.
The Israelites waited for liberation from Egypt and then, by their own folly, wandered around the desert an extra 40 years, waiting for God to allow them into the Promised Land.
Mostly, however, God’s people waited for the Messiah, for the one who would crush their enemies and restore peace and prosperity. We hear it in the words of Isaiah 35:3-4: “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’” (RSV).
Generations later, John the Baptist inherited that prophetic mantle and picked up the chorus for a new generation of God’s people who felt swallowed up by the vast Roman Empire.
In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist is heard echoing that fiery theme when he describes the Messiah as one who is coming with winnowing fork in hand. It is a farming metaphor that speaks to the task of separating the valuable grain from the worthless husks. In Matthew 3, John announces that the one who is coming “will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (RSV).
Waiting for the fire
The rest of Matthew’s gospel is, however, remarkably free of fire. If Jesus is truly the Messiah, where is the judgment being rained down on a faithless people? Where is the chaff being burned away? As Katie Hines-Shah observes in her sermon help for this text, Jesus is not quite what John expected. “There’s more feasting, less fasting,” she writes, “less condemnation, more grace.”
What’s a prophet to do? From his prison cell, hearing secondhand accounts of Jesus and his disciples, it is no wonder that John sent his own disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words, “We’re looking for the fire, Jesus.”
Our own experience of waiting during Advent is, I think, complicated by that same longing. Secretly, don’t you want to say, “Make things right, Jesus!” Rain down a little fire on those who oppress the poor, who wreak havoc through terror, who claim to seek peace through violence and warfare and who threaten our comforts or oppose our convictions, be they political or religious. We’re tired of waiting, our hearts are fearful, our knees are feeble and our hands weak.
We should know by now that Jesus doesn’t do the expected. “More feasting, less fasting,—less condemnation, more grace.”
Seeing in the fog
Jesus’s response to the disciples of John the Baptist is kind. Rather than pointing to acts of judgement he says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: ‘The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’” (Matt. 11:4-5, RSV.)
What Jesus doesn’t say is implied. Even now Isaiah’s prophecy is coming to pass, and the liberating work of the Messiah is being done. The kingdom of God is breaking thru. Do you have eyes to see it?
I once stayed at an airport hotel where my room had a view of the nearby airport and runways. It was foggy, and as I worked at the desk I would glance up to see the airport buildings and the hills in the background, go back to work and then glance over again to see it all hidden with just the runway barely discernible. The airport kept appearing and disappearing. I knew it was there, but sometimes it was dim and very hard to see.
The kingdom of God breaking into our world is, of course, more than buildings appearing and disappearing in the fog. But surely it remains as difficult for us, as it seems to have been for John and his disciples, to see and participate in this other reality that is still breaking into our world.
John the Baptist wasn’t sure he recognized the signs. Preoccupied, perhaps, with a taste for fire and vengeance (and who can blame him, he was in prison!), surely he can be forgiven for missing the significance of the healings that are recorded in the Gospels and the way Jesus was bringing to life the picture of Zion that Isaiah had painted so many years before.
Isaiah’s prophecy was coming to pass before his very eyes. The waiting was over. The Messiah had come, and a new reality was taking shape.
That’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
It’s our confession that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that the kingdom of God has broken into our world. But here is the other confession. While we affirm the “already” of the kingdom announced by Jesus, we recognize that it is “not yet” completely realized.
This season of Advent is layered with another longing as it marks our own period of waiting, our own impatience.
When will the Messiah return? When will the kingdom of God, that time and place of peace and prosperity, be fully realized? When will our deaf hear and our lame leap like deer? Where is the good news being offered to the poor?
And, if there is a side of vengeance to be directed at our enemies, well, we’d take that, too.
Perhaps in our longing for the fully realized kingdom, we miss what is already here and offered to us. Like John the Baptist, we may have trouble recognizing the signs.
More about the grace
Isaiah’s vision of Zion spoke to God’s liberating work and reign and Jesus demonstrated what that might be. In his commentary, Warren Carter reminds us that Jesus, “performs God’s will, embraces the marginalized, challenges the elite’s power and self-interest, and creates new social roles for some. He is God’s anointed.”
As followers of Jesus, aren’t we called to do the same? Surely Jesus is still willing to heal blindness, especially when that blindness keeps us from seeing and welcoming the marginalized around us.
Surely Jesus is still eager to open the ears of the deaf so that we hear new music, new patterns of speech and the accents of those whom God is also about the business of saving.
Surely Jesus wants to heal those of us crippled by old habits and attachments that keep us from living fully and generously as a redeemed people.
Surely Jesus is still offering to save us, releasing us from our fears so that both individually and corporately we may give witness to the saving power of our almighty God.
This is what we should be impatient for—not so much the judgment but the healing. Thankfully, it IS less about the condemnation and more about the grace.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. This Christmas, may we truly see your kingdom. Amen
Valerie Rempel has served as dean of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and vice president of Fresno Pacific University. She has degrees from Tabor College, MB Biblical Seminary and Vanderbilt University and has served on a variety of Mennonite Brethren and inter-Mennonite boards. In September 2021, she will begin working as the director of accreditation for The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS).